Ken Harrison 6:41 p.m., Dec. 12
Four months of battling pain, work comp paperwork, pain, work comp doctors, pain, and lawyers who thrive in work comp purgatory, has left me too exhausted to do what pleases me most. Working on my Palatial Wooden Shack or roaming the streets of Tijuana - Just kind of casually snooping around you might say.
Lately, I spend a lot of time sitting on my front porch and watching the leaves on my muscat vine turning a lighter shade of green as they prepare to wither, come fall. The leaves and fruit on my table grape are still going strong so I sit on that side of the porch. I try to find a ripe grape to eat but other family members have beaten me again.
Trini's daughter owns a place on our block but doesn't live there. Her brother lives there alone. A couple of weeks ago he asked me if it was all right to rent out part of the place. We have a neighbor on our block who lives and works in San Diego but is developing a piece of property near us. His lot isn't yet habitable and he wanted to know if his nephew could crash out there. I told them all, "It's not my call to make because it wasn't my house," but that I had no problem with him having a roommate.
A couple of days later, I was hobbling back from the store with a liter of milk, when I saw three young men sitting on the steps in front of the house that was supposed to be getting rented out to one guy. Trini's son came outside and filled me in.
Cesar is the name of my neighbor's nephew. He'd been the first to show up. Cesar had spent the last couple of weeks in a hotel in downtown Tijuana after being deported from the United States. he is nineteen years old, of medium height and stockily built. His voice is average in volume but he has an unmistacable laugh that I would hear barreling up the block during the next few days.
He'd been arrested in the state of Oregon in November 2009 and deported to Tijuana in late July of 2010. Cesar had spent the last twelve years of his life in the United States. Ever since he was seven years old, and his parents had immigrated from Guadalajara, he'd been immersed in the American culture. He was by far the most 'Americanized' of the three men. After their ordeal, Cesar was the first one I interviewed. Within minutes of beginning our conversation we slipped into the English/Spanish mix that is common amongst Chicano/as.
His English was very good. Much better than my Spanish. What I noticed even more about Cesar was his attitude. he has an American mentality. That 'nobody better f**k with me' posture. As opposed to the Mexican attitude which is more akin to, 'I've been screwed over so much in my life I can deal with it.' That attitude would cost him during the trio's two day nightmare.
The other two young men are named Lazaro and Alfredo. Both are from Vera Cruz on Mexico's east coast. They'd been living and working in Washington before being arrested and deported (Which was when they'd met Cesar). Lazaro is twenty-seven, tall and lanky of build with a medium complexion. He worked in construction and is thefather of two children, ages three years and the other ten months. He'd been living in the USA for five years when he was arrested and deported. Alfredo is a bit shorter than his fellow veracruzano, as well as a bit thicker than him also. Alfredo is twenty years old and had been working cleaning apartments before his arrest. He'd been living and working in the USA for about two and a half years.
The three young men told me that life in downtown Tijuana for a recently deported immigrant is pure hell. "The cops mess with us, the thieves mess with us, everybody messes wih us down there," one of them said to me. Then another chimed in, "We're afraid to go to the store so we stay inside and if we want something from the store we have to pay somebody at the hotel to go for us!" "And they charge a lot!" added the first. That was when it dawned on me.
"How long have you been downtown?" I asked them.
"A couple of weeks," they answered.
These guys had just been deported but were still hanging around Tijuana instead of going back to Vera Cruz or Guadalajara. Later on, when I interviewed them, I saw that their ties to the United States were so great that they would risk death, to be reunited with the ones they love. At that moment though, I just thought they were crazy.
They were planning on going back to the U.S. I didn't think this was a very prudent decision on their part. Cesar had crossed the border twelve years ago, Lazaro five years ago and Alfredo almost three years back. The border had changed a lot since then. It was much more dangerous. I advised them to go back to their native states and maybe lay low for awhile. The trio just smiled politely at me and asked if they could rent the place for a couple of days. Once again I said hat, "It wasn't my call to make but I had no problem with them staying there."
On Wednesday morning, August 18, 2010, the three men left to rendevous with a guide at a prearranged location. The four men were driven north on the Highway 2000 before being dropped off at a spot approximately ten minutes before the Tijuana-Tecate toll booth. This area is easy to locate on the SD Reader neighborhood map. Just follow the 2000 north and you'll find it. You'll see that it's some pretty rough country.
The three undocumented immigrants and their guide began hiking up into the mountains. After less than an hour of climbing they could see the border fence off in the distance. Every one of them breathed a sigh of relief. If they could just get over that fence the most dangerous part would be over. Each man relaxed and dropped his guard. That was when four heavily armed men surrounded them.
The four gunmen had their faces covered throughout the kidnapping. "When they would drink water, one would cover us with a gun while the other turned his back to us, lifted his mask and drank," one of them would later tell me. The three would be crossers and their guide were moved behind some nearby rocks where they could be searched for money and valuables without being detected. One of the robbers took a liking to a pair of almost new Nike's that Lazaro had on. Within moments, Lazaro was wearing what later appeared to me to be, a ratty looking pair of Wallabe knockoffs.
Two of the four gunmen appeared to be in their middle twenties while the other two were in the thirty to forty year old range. One from each age group spoke with a Chilango (resident of federal district-Mexico City) accent. As they were searching the men for valuables, one of the gunmen joked that they were "Merely seeking donations for a house he was building."
After being robbed, the four captives were led up a mountainside to a large rock formation that formed a sort of cave. Inside were almost two dozen other victims. All men, who'd been captured in the last day or so, within the immediate area. When Cesar, Lazaro, Alfredo and their guide were added to the prisoners it came out to eighteen pollos/undocumented immigrants and five coyotes/guides. That was when the kidnappers separated them one at a time from the rest. each victim was given a cell phone and told to start calling or they'd die.
The ransom was 'around' two thousand dollars a life but varied (more or less what that person would be paying to cross). The trio told me that some families paid as little as one thousand dollars while others paid up to three grand for the release of their loved ones. As each victim was making he ransom demand call, the kidnappers would be slapping and punching them, while threatening worse. They wanted the victims families to feel the terror that their loved ones were experiencing.
When it came Cesar's turn to call, the kidnappers started slugging him across his broad shoulders but Cesar would only grunt and tell his mother everything was ok. This infuriated the gunmen who began striking him harder. They wanted him to plead but he refused at first. Eventually he was beaten so badly across his back he complied with their demands.
This incident was told to me by Lazaro and Alfredo after Cesar had departed. When I'd asked Cesar about that part of his ordeal he'd never mentioned the beating. The look on his face never changed. I conveyed this to his two companions. "You should have asked to see his back," Lazaro said to me. Alfredo nodded in agreement and said, "Purple and black."
"Did they beat you too?" I asked them.
Lazaro and Alfredo both laughed. "Not after what we saw them do to Cesar. All they had to do was raise their hands and we started squawking like chickens."
By Thursday evening the ransoms of fourteen out of the eighteen crossers being held hostage had been paid into a bank account. On that night the kidnappers told them all that they would be set free. Even the four who couldn't make ransom would be released. The captives thought they would be freed that night. Then the cell phone of the leader rang.
Whoever was on the other end of the phone call ordered the gunmen not to move anybody that night. That was because a large shipment of drugs was going to go through that sector and they didn't want anybody drawing attention to the area. Cesar, Lazaro, Alfredo and the other hostages had to spend another night in captivity.
In the morning, the eighteen men were herded down from their makeshift prison and told to march toward the border. None of the three wanted to continue the journey northward. As they later told me, "We were broke. They'd even stolen most of our food. All the good stuff. We just wanted to return to Tijuana and figure out what to do next." The gunmen would not let them. They told them to head toward the border and to not come back that way for nothing. No doubt they didn't want them interfering with teir next batch of victims. to show they meant business they fired several rounds over the heads of he northward fleeing men.
The entire group of eighteen were being tracked by Homeland security agents as they crossed. Fifteen were quickly apprehended as they entered the USA. Only Cesar, Lazaro and Alfredo had managed to elude them.
"The agents began pressuring the others to tell them where we were hiding," said one of them. "We could hear him yelling. He was telling them that they knew how many were in the group."
"Where are the other three!" The agents told the tired and hungry crossers that they weren't going anywhere until the other three were found. One of them eventually told the agents where the three lay hidden and they were caught. I wanted to ask them, 'Why they were hiding from the migra if they hadn't wanted to cross at all?" But I already knew that answer. You just have to think like a crosser. They'd already been deported once (twice in Lazaro's case). If they were caught again they'd be in trouble. Once on the U.S. side they had no choice but to try and avoid detection. They'd already committed once they crossed.
I asked the trio if there had been any physical coercion of the detainees and all three said "no." Never once did they see a border agent strike anyone. But there was extensive vrbal abuse they said. Cesar speaks perfect English and understood there every word. He translated for the others and so they all knew what the agents had been saying to them; "All of you m*r f**s suck cause you got caught!" and "I live here (USA) and I'm not going nowhere!" were the two phrases they all mentioned.
On Saturday, every member of the former hostages filled out a report with Homeland Security. Lazaro later told me that one of the agents informed him that a total of thirty thousand dollars had been extorted from the families of the fourteen who'd paid. I quickly did the math. The kidnappers grabbed their victims on Wednesday and by Thursday evening the money was in an account. Only the drug shipment prevented them from dumping their quarry and gathering up another group. What should have taken two days wound up taking three. That still comes out to ten thousand dollars a day, seventy thousand a week, if you don't take a day off.
A recent article in one of Tijuana's dailies, stated that 'forty percent of the undocumented immigrants being deported from the United States are dumped at the Tijuana port of entry. I normally pass through there several times a week and always see the lines of deportees. I asked two of them (Cesar was gone by then) about their treatment by the private security firm known as Wackenhut that houses and transports them to the border. Or as they referred to them, "The men in grey." "Those guys are way worse than the guys in green (federal agents), they told me. "They hit you and always yell at you."
By Sunday, all three were back on my block and recovering from their ordeal. When I found out what happened I asked them if I could interview them and write an article about their trek. They each agreed and then I told them that they could give me any first name they wanted and that is what they would be called in the story.
Cesar asked to beinterviewed first because he already had a bus ticket south. His family in the USA had convinced him not to try the journey agan until a safer way could be secured. No matter how long it took. They'd wired him more money and informed relatives down in Guadalajara that their son was on his way. Cesar was the youngest of the three would be crossers and it was obvious that his mother had been worried sick about him. After what happened, she probably didn't need to go through that again.
Lazaro and Alfredo had still not confirmed their plans but they were talking about returning to Vera Cruz. They went so far as to give us the few cans of tuna they had left because they said they wouldn't need them in the coastal region of Vera Cruz. Lazaro even went out and purchased a new pair of bright, white tennis shoes ( a cheap Chinese import) that were far to bright and attention grabbing to be crossing the border in.
I spoke alone with Cesar and later that day with Lazaro and Alfredo together. When I asked Cesar what he'd been arrested for he said that he was a "Nineteen year old with a sixteen year old girlfriend." I told him about how in 1980, when I was eighteen and living in Los Angeles, I had a seventeen year old girlfriend. One night we were in my van. We were parked alongside a local park that was a well known make out spot. It was about three in the morning when a patrol car pulled up behind us. The officer told me I was breaking the law with a minor but since there was no booze or dope involved and maybe because of the proximity of our ages (less than a year), he let me go. When I told Cesar this he grinned and said; "But you didn't get deported."
Lazaro sat down next for his interview and was shortly joined b Alfredo. I asked Lazaro what he'd been arrested for and he said; "Fighting with a gringo. He started it. Then he called the cops on me. Who called the migra." I told him about how when I was his age I got into a fight with a guy who called the cops on me and I went to jail. Lazaro smiled and said; "But you didn't get deported."
When I asked Alfredo the same question he said that on June 20, 2009, he'd been arrested for public intoxication. When I said to him that I'd been busted several times for public drunkeness during my wayward youth he smiled and replied; "But you have your papers(Translation: But you didn't get deported)."
I checked my notes after Alfredo said he'd been arrested in June of 2009. Lazaro had been picked up on march 21, 2009 and Cesar in November of that same year. They'd only been in Tijuana since early August of this year. Which meant they'd spent a lot of time behind bars. The fact that they would even contemplate trying to return to possible reincarceration (or worse as it turned out) was mind boggling. But they did, it failed, and now they were back to square one. At least Lazaro and Alfredo were. Cesar was already on his way to Guadalajara.
Later that day, Lazaro approached me as I sat talking with trini. In his hands he held the white tennis shoes he'd just purchased. "Would you like to buy my new tennis shoes?" Lazaro said to me. "I think we wear the same size." His wanting to sell his brand new tennis shoes told me that they'd decided totry and cross back into the USA. I looked into Lazaro's face but he dropped his gaze and wouldn't make eye contact with me. Deep down insie, I wasn't a bit surprised.
When I'd interviewed the three men after their kidnapping and release, I was struck by the similiar emotion, or lack of, shown by the trio. The best way to describe their demeaner was 'shell shocked.' They had a far away look in their eyes asthey related their experiences to me. Growing up on the tough streets of East Los Angeles I'd seen that look before. It's the face of a crime victim trying to digest everything that has just taken place.
Only Lazaro showed any real emotion during the interviews. It was when I asked him about his family back in the USA. When he started describing his children and their mother his eyes brimmed with tears. I distinctly remembered him turning his head away from me several times and wiping at his eyes. Of the three men he as easily the one I thought would try and return immediately. Cesar andAlfredo are nineteen and twenty respectively. And while theyhave girlfriends back in the USa, Lazaro is older(27) and has two children. Cesar and Alfredo could bide their time while Lazaro wouldn't allow himself too.
The next morning Lazaro and Alfedo were gone. They said they were going east. To the city of Monterey in the state of Nuevo Leon. An ara of intense violence amongst cartels and federal troops. They had told me that the Zetas have a much more efficient system of smuggling undocumented immigrants than what they'd seenout west. since they are originally from Vera Cruz it made sense that they were more connected to operations there than in Tijuana.
Within a couple of days, Cesar had called and said he'd arrived in Guadalajara and was doing fine. Later that week news broke of the massacre of seventy two would be crossers in the state of Tamaulipas near Monterey,N.L. Shortly afterward, we got a call from Lazaro and Alfredo. They'd reached their destination in Monterey and were seeking a contact/guide. They haven't been heard from since.
On September 3rd I'll be undergoing surgery. When I walk across the border into the USA I'll be wearing the white tennis shoes I bought off of Lazaro and I'll be thinking of those guys. It's so easy to villify and scapegoat people that you've never met. But when you get to know strangers, one of the first things you'll find is that they're not so strange after all. Just people who laugh and cry at most of the same things we do.
COFFEE'S READY, GOTTA GO!!!